An anxiety expert tells us why it's high time we stopped people-pleasing...
Words by Chloe Brotheridge
It's so easy to say 'yes' – to keep the peace, to be kind, to be a 'good' person, a helpful friend, a dutiful employee. But have you ever stopped to consider the true cost of doing so?
Close your eyes for a moment, take a deep breath and allow your mind to drift back in time. Let your mind wander back to all those times you said yes to things that you didn't really want to do. Coffees you had with people you didn't want to have coffee with... Movies you didn't want to watch... Weddings you didn't want to be at... Times you stayed late at work to help out on projects that weren't even yours.
Think about all the time, energy and cold, hard cash you've wasted, all because you didn't feel you could say 'no'.
If you've ever felt the pressure to keep others happy at the expense of your own well-being, you're in good company – celebrity people-pleasers include Beyoncé and Jessica Alba – and while some level of pleasing others is necessary and healthy, it's important to know when it's gone too far.
Why do we, as women, find it so hard to say no? The answer lies in how we were raised. As children, we're praised and encouraged for being 'good girls'. Meanwhile, if boys cause a ruckus, it's more likely to be dismissed because 'boys will be boys'.
We're repeatedly fed the message that women are natural nurturers who should put others first. Throughout society and the media, the message is that we should be pretty, perfect and pleasing. Don't cause a fuss. Don't take up to much space. Don't make too much noise.
But there is a darker side to always putting others first. This might be a bitter pill to swallow, but when it comes to excessive people-pleasing we're labouring under the fallacy that by always saying yes, we can manipulate people into loving us or we can avoid being abandoned – something for which there are no guarantees.
In the process, we end up abandoning ourselves. We seek love from others who don't give it back to us. This is not right, and it's not sustainable.
Without taking care of ourselves first, we run out of things to give, so we burn out. We become resentful. We wonder why we never have enough time to fulfil our own dreams and desires. And our mental health suffers as a result.
But when you say no to what isn't your highest priority, you say yes to yourself. You say no to drinks with colleagues so you can say yes to staying in to flop on the sofa with a good book. You say no to helping organise the school fair so that you can say yes to getting on top of your mental health. You say no to meeting an old friend for coffee so that you can say yes to the peace of mind of getting to inbox zero.
What if, far from making you a bad person, saying no was actually the kindest thing you could do. A kindness to yourself that filters out to other people. Because when you're full up, there's more for you and you have more to give. More capacity to give from a place of love, not resentment or fear.
So my invitation to you is this; to check in with yourself more carefully the next time you're asked to do something. Feel into what 'yes' and 'no' feels like in your body. Get into the habit of asking yourself: 'What is it that I want?' And if you're put on the spot, there's no harm in replying 'Let me think about it and get back to you' while you check in with yourself, or build up the courage to find your 'no'.
Chloe is a hypnotherapist, anxiety expert and the author of The Anxiety Solution and Brave New Girl, both out now
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